Ken Foster, the New Orleans-based author of I'm a Good Dog: Pit Bulls, America's Most Beautiful (and Misunderstood) Pet, spoke to a crowd of dog owners and advocates at the Tattered Cover Colfax last night. Foster's stop here was significant: Not only does Denver have a controversial breed ban on pit bulls, but on Saturday police officers shot a family dog that was part-pit bull in Commerce City. Here's how Foster began his talk: "Denver doesn't 'have' pit bulls, so I wasn't going to come through here..."
Foster didn't start his writing career focusing on pit bulls, but when his editor became intrigued by his affinity for dogs, he was urged to write about them. The books that followed explored Foster's path to becoming a dog person and his realization that there were more strays where he'd adopted his pets -- and most of them were pit bulls. That led him to found the Sula Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting and fostering pit bull ownership through low-cost veterinary service, education and adoption.
Although few publishers were willing to bank on the controversial topic of pit bulls, Foster kept writing. And ultimately, Penguin bit on I'm a Good Dog, a labor of love that dispels myths and focuses on facts about pit bulls. "Dogs are all individuals," he told the crowd, "and we need to look at them that way.
During his talk, Foster discussed two very different news stories that inspired people to start thinking about pit bulls in a new way: Hurricane Katrina and the Michael Vick scandal. "Those two events showed pit bulls as victims," he said. "Sixty percent of all the pets left behind [by Katrina] were pit bulls, and people who volunteered in relief efforts from all over the country were forced to work with a breed they had often judged before. After working with them, they went back to their hometowns with that information."
As for Michael Vick, Foster said, "he brought a big issue out in the open -- and dog fighting is still happening out there. But at a certain point, you just have to let the directed anger at the person go, and this is something I've only recently decided to do myself."
Before people started thinking of pit bulls as victims, popular culture praised them. Petey, the beloved pet in The Little Rascals, was a pit bull. Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, said that his pit bull was his best friend when he was growing up. Writer James Thurber came from a family of pit bull lovers and owners. And Helen Keller once described her pit bull as the dog who understood her limitations the most.
Those sentiments stand in stark contrast to Denver's current ban on pit bulls. And before Foster went to the Tattered Cover, he paid visits to a few spots where he didn't expect to find fans of the dog: Denver City Council and the Denver Municipal Animal Shelter. Although he wasn't able to talk to any councilmembers in person, Foster said that the staffers he met at City Hall were very pleasant.
City workers at the animal shelter weren't nearly as accommodating, however. "When I walked out," he told the Tattered Cover audience, "I noticed a poster by the door that said, 'The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated' -- a quote from the Dalai Lama -- next to a picture of a pit bull."
The audience was packed with dog lovers, and several asked Foster if he thought progress could be made in overturning Denver's ban. "A dangerous dog law keeps people safe, but breed-specific laws don't," he said. And while Denver has yet to make a move, other states, like Massachusetts, are starting to institute laws prohibiting discrimination against certain breeds.
At the end of the reading and subsequent discussion, every pet owner who'd brought pictures of their own pit bulls stood by the signing table to have their photo taken with Foster. Pet pictures ranging from snapshots to poster-sized photos to cell phones were held up for the shot. Then, Foster proceeded to sign books and photos, and discuss the pit bull issue long after the registers at the Tattered Cover were closed.
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